Shout! Factory has rescued yet another classic show from falling into obscurity, finally collecting and releasing the episodes of Beetlejuice: The Complete Series in a long-overdue DVD box set. Many will be overjoyed to revisit this staple of early ’90s Saturday morning cartoons and share it with future generations, but although the thrilling intro sequence proudly proclaims the “ghost with the most”’s catchphrase, “It’s showtime!”, the set itself is surprisingly short on showmanship.
Inspired by the unforgettable 1988 Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton as the decomposing, sleazy bio-exorcist whom a recently deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) call from the great beyond by ritualistically calling his name three times, this cartoon is unsurprisingly toned down compared to its morbid source. For the cartoon, Beetlejuice is reimagined as a far friendlier but no less foul ghoul. Now best friends with the young goth girl Lydia Deetz (played by Winona Ryder in the original), through their escapades the undead troublemaker feeds into her fascination with grossness, ghosts, and graveyards.
The 94 episodes of Beetlejuice oscillate between the real world, where the mundane events of Lydia’s preteen life are continually disrupted by Beetlejuice’s shenanigans, and the “Neitherworld”, the loony realm of the afterlife that hearkens back to the landscape of “Porky in Wackyland” (1938) with all its surrealism and absurdity. The Neitherworld is not just the home of the deceased, like Beetlejuice, but it’s also inhabited by monsters—both ghastly and good-natured.
The episodes that take place in this curiously macabre yet simultaneously merry underworld have a great capacity for depth and wit, paralleling the absurdity of real life with zany but undeniably familiar situations and characters. The real-world segments, on the other hand, tend to be relatively flat without this added dimension of social satire, resulting in an overemphasis on the moralizing format typical of children’s cartoons, delivering lessons about lying, apologizing, taking revenge, and the like.
Beetlejuice still stands out from your average Saturday morning cartoon line-up, and it paved the way for future frightful favorites such as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters (1994-1997) and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (2003-2008). Moreover, the series was pioneering because it featured a young female lead, and especially one who deliberately and proudly broke out of the typical “girly” mold. Even though Lydia slips quite easily into another stereotype, that of the “goth girl”, she showed young viewers that it’s okay to like bugs, monsters, and icky things, even if you’re a girl!
Now over two decades old, the Beetlejuice cartoon is a bit dated, and it does, unfortunately, rely almost entirely on wordplay and punning as its source of humor, but it still holds up well in many ways. Especially when the show moved from just Saturday mornings on ABC to a weekday air schedule on Fox Kids for its fourth and final season, Beetlejuice took on a whole new dimension. In its new daily format, the series was able to delve more deeply into the Neitherworld and expand its comedic style to include clever commentary and hilarious parody, including, for example, spoofs of (Young) Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, and The Twilight Zone.
From the very first episode of Season 4, sporting a more visually impressive and aesthetically captivating introductory animated sequence to match the exquisitely chilling theme song, a marked shift in the series’ tone can be sensed. Jumping straight into a meta-critique of the network television ratings system, Beetlejuice struggles to keep his talk show on the air, the executives at Neitherworld TV complaining that it “has been dropping in ratings since it started… 30 seconds ago!”
The box set itself provides everything expected, but no more. The image quality is not stellar, but this may be due in large part to the less-than-perfect ways in which the animated series has been preserved over the past 20 years. The age of the show may also have put limitations on the possibilities for DVD extras, but it is surprising and highly disappointing that Shout! Factory didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to film new interviews with the likes of Tim Burton or Danny Elfman (who personally rearranged the original film’s theme for the cartoon) and instead chose not to include any special features at all.
Shout! Factory’s 12-disc box set is certainly an excellent buy, offering a nostalgic return to a classic cartoon inspired by fantastic film. Although completely deprived of the DVD extras that would make the set a true collector’s item, Beetlejuice: The Complete Series offers enough comedy, commentary, and charisma in the content of the cartoon itself.